The vaguely predatory device on the left in the photo above is a Marantz Pianocorder Vorsetzer. The Vorsetzer (German, literally, “sits in front of”) has existed in one form or another since the end of the 19th century; it’s a device that can play a piano. The technologies employed are similar to those used in player pianos; the difference is that the playing mechanism is in an external unit with mechanical “fingers.” Thus the Vorsetzer will play any piano it can be rolled up to.
It just happens that I’m in possession of one of these; it was purchased by my parents in the 1980s, and has been dormant for at least two decades. I’ve had it shipped to me in San Francisco, and with the help of the SFCM Electronic Music Department — in particular Will Clark — it’s been reanimated.
The purpose of this adventure, as the reader may have surmised, is to write music for the beast.
The music part is easy. Getting the Vorsetzer to play a piece is a little more challenging. It is a (early) digital device, so it doesn’t use a traditional piano roll but rather stores its musical data on cassette tapes. Fortunately, I don’t have to encode my music onto a cassette in an arcane 1970s digital data format; an enterprising engineer named Mark Fontana has written conversion software that allows one to feed the Vorsetzer MIDI data. So I'm now at work on a piece — written in a MIDI sequencer – that will be realized by the Vorsetzer at my Graduate Recital in August. While titles don’t usually come to me until after a work is written, the nature of this endeavor suggests that Contraption would sum things up nicely.